The first vertically integrated plant for converting PET packaging waste into finished rPET products with properties comparable to those made from virgin PET has opened in Vernon, CA, and more such facilities could be on the way.
The Vernon plant, run by rPlanet Earth, converts bottles, clamshell containers and other packaging waste into food-grade sheet, thermoformed containers and injection-molded preforms for bottles. The 302,000-sqare-foot facility, which cost more than $100 million, has an annual capacity of 80,000,00 lbs. (36,290 metric tons), and rPlanet Earth plans to add a second bales-to-end product production line to the site within the next two years.
“The utilities and other infrastructure are already in place to support a new line that can have a capacity 50% larger than that of our existing line,” said rPlanet Earth co-CEO Robert Daviduk, according to a press release. He added that the company hopes to add at least three new plants in the United States and around the world.
When bales enter the rPlanet Earth facility, they’re broken down into a single stream of bottles and thermoforms. Magnetic sorters remove foreign matter, and near-infrared scanners identify PET and separate it from other polymers. Another sorting step separates PET materials by color. From there, a dry system grinds the materials into flake before they are cleaned and labels, adhesives and other matter are skimmed off. The flake enters a Krones MetaPure reactor, where heat and vacuum are used in a final decontamination process. A solid-state polymerization process raises the intrinsic viscosity of the rPET to various levels, depending on the target application.
“By skipping the pelletizing of rPET we potentially avoid degrading our products’ appearance, since a melting step that can negatively affect color is completely eliminated,” Daviduk said. “Our customers are looking for products that come from a truly closed-loop recycling system.”
Co-CEO Joseph Ross added that while the company’s rPET packaging has a similar appearance, purity and physical properties of virgin PET, it’s more sustainably produced.
“…[O]ur carbon footprint is 60% less than that of packaging made from virgin resin and in fact is 20% less than that for rPET products from other companies,” Ross said, adding that the figures take into account curbside collection, baling, and transportation as well as the operation in the Vernon plant. “In addition, our recycling operation uses 90% less water, per quantity of output, than a PET resin plant.”
rPlanet Earth can supply sheet, thermoformed packaging or preforms whose rPET content can range up to 100%, depending on whether a customer requires some percentage of virgin PET.